Springfield State Journal Register

January 17, 2004

Back from Iraq
Alton man recovering from wounds suffered while serving with 233rd


WASHINGTON - Second Lt. Stephen Rice emerged from his hospital room Friday with the help of an aluminum walker and a physical therapist on each side.

It was a milestone. His 10-minute walk down the hall of the orthopedic ward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center was his longest since Dec. 27, when a roadside bomb in Baghdad ripped open his leg and blew off a big toe.

To date, the 23-year-old Rice is the most seriously injured member of the Illinois National Guard’s Springfield-based 233rd Military Police Company, which has been on duty in Baghdad since shortly after it fell last April.

His few halting steps down the hospital hallway brought relief to his mother, who only moments earlier had seen him for the first time since he was injured.

“I think he looks incredible,” said Ruth Rice, 44, of Bunker Hill. “Whatever obstacles he’s going to encounter, he’s going to overcome them.”

Her son was severely injured three weeks ago when a hidden roadside bomb exploded near him in central Baghdad.

Last Saturday, he was transported from a U.S. military hospital in Germany to Walter Reed, where he is one of 25 combat-wounded soldiers being treated. (Walter Reed admits about 50 patients a week from Operation Iraqi Freedom, but most have injuries or illnesses un-related to battle.)

Rice, of Alton, has been told he might spend the next three months at the Army medical center. His first week was rough. Two days after he arrived, he had his fourth surgery on his leg. A planned skin graft to close an open wound was delayed because of a bacterial infection in his leg.

His doctors will reassess the situation next week. He hopes then they can come up with a timeline for treatment so he can start to make plans for the future.

He currently has rods holding his left leg bones in place and a large metal pin sticking out of his big toe, which had to be surgically reattached.

At some later date, doctors say they will need to fuse his ankle bone, which will limit his leg movement. He tries not to think about how that might affect his longtime ambition of becoming a police officer.

“It just gets me upset,” Rice said. “It’s what I’ve wanted to do for so long. I’m trying to keep a positive outlook.”

Rice said he sees law enforcement as a career that would allow him to help people directly.

Did he feel he was helping people in Iraq?

“That’s a tough question,” he said. “Some days you feel like you’re making a difference, and some days you’re just waiting for the plane ride home.”

Rice was on his way to help a wounded soldier in Baghdad when the bomb detonated on his left side.

Even as he’s dealing with his own medical injuries, his mother said he asked her to find out how the other soldier is doing. He has a broken leg and ankle.

Ruth Rice on Friday delivered a pile of handmade get-well cards from students at Our Lady Queen of Peace Elementary School in Bethalto. She also brought him copies of e-mails from relatives, friends and other supporters that she plans to compile in a scrapbook for him.

She’s especially proud of one from his commanding officer in Baghdad, Capt. Jeff Royer, calling her son “a fierce warrior and a compassionate human being. He motivated his soldiers through one of the toughest times of their lives and he did it with ease.”

Ruth Rice had last seen her son when he was home for a two-week furlough in October. He learned of his deployment to Iraq one day after he graduated from officers’ training school.

“Even before the world knew he was a hero, we knew,” she said.